MUSCATINE — The shared value of putting people first has repeatedly brought together HNI Corporation’s leadership team and the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. Historically and currently, the Muscatine-based company has given time, talent and money to the college, sending its leaders there as lecturers and mentors, and offering internships and jobs to its students.
It was in getting to know the company’s current chairman and CEO Jeff Lorenger – who also is on the Tippie board of directors – that the college decided to make him the third HNI leader to receive the annual Oscar C. Schmidt Iowa Business Leadership Award. Mr. Lorenger, in turn, insisted this year’s award belongs to his whole leadership team.
“Their hard work helped us weather the pandemic,” Mr. Lorenger said.
At a Nov. 18 award ceremony at the Merrill Hotel in Muscatine, Tippie Business College Dean Amy Kristof-Brown admitted the college does not know the connection between Iowa and the Ohio man for whom this award is named – or the man who established the annual award. Oscar C. Schmidt founded the Cincinnati Butchers’ Supply Co. and invented meat slicing, meat casing and cooling equipment. His grandson, C. Oscar Schmidt, set up the award to honor his businessman/inventor grandfather and those who demonstrate business leadership ability in Iowa.
Ms. Kristof-Brown said Mr. Lorenger and his leadership team offer a connection between academics and business. “The impact of HNI and its people on the business college is undeniable.”
She also noted HNI’s history of business impact. The office furniture manufacturer began in Muscatine in 1947, and has provided more than 65 years of continuous dividend payments to its shareholders. HNI employs more than 7,700 people worldwide and is made up of 19 industry-leading brands.
A native of Denison, Iowa, Mr. Lorenger earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Iowa Tippie College. He and his wife, Lisa, then simultaneously earned their law degrees at Iowa. They moved to Minnesota for work, but came back to Iowa in 1998.
“Coming back to Iowa to work at what was then HON Industries was the best move of my life,” he said. “This was a great place to raise a family.”
Mr. Lorenger said that his wife’s support has made his career possible. And his employees, he said, made the last two years bearable.
Mr. Lorenger and his team answered some questions for the QCBJ about winning the Oscar C. Schmidt Award and about how an office furniture company survived the work-from-home trend during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University of Iowa Tippie College of Business is presenting you and your team the 2021 Oscar C. Schmidt Award for business excellence in Iowa. What has helped the team achieve this recognition?
“This award is a symbol of the collective efforts of all HNI members. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a strong leadership team, but ultimately, it is the results delivered by HNI’s member/owners that enable us to achieve success.”
What does the award mean to you, your team and the company?
“This is the third time that HNI has been selected for the Oscar C. Schmidt Award. The first was in 1980, the inaugural year of the award, when Max Stanley was selected. Stan Howe became HNI’s second recipient 35 years ago. It is an honor to continue the high standards set by our predecessors as we come upon the corporation’s 75th anniversary next year.”
Your company has endured many challenges during COVID, especially with the trend toward work-from-home arrangements. Your website shows you have pivoted toward the situation. “Work from home” is the first clickable link. At the top of the page, HNI offers work-life balance tips. How much business have you had to shift toward this trend, and are you starting to see any reversal?
“2020 was a challenging year in our Workplace Furnishings segment. However, new opportunities to sell furniture into home office settings have emerged. Many consumers and their employers have realized how important it is to have furniture that provides good ergonomics. While many will eventually return to the office, a hybrid environment with more time working at home is expected to be the most common practice going forward.
Additionally, our Residential Building Products segment which focuses on hearth products experienced strong demand as many people invested in their homes through remodeling, and new home construction was strong.”
Has HNI seen any effects from the “Great Resignation?” HNI makes the statement “People come first.” What does that mean in your everyday business? How do you want your employees, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders to feel in their interactions with HNI?
“HNI is an organization of people who let respect, integrity, quality, and endless pursuit of improvement guide what we do and who we are. Since our founding in 1947, HNI has operated under the premise that all would be treated equally and respectfully as members/owners of a productive industrial enterprise. Employees at HNI refer to each other as members, and almost all are shareholders through HNI’s profit-sharing plan. Empowered to think and act like owners and trusted to make decisions, every HNI member stands to benefit from individual and group successes. Empowered accountability paired with respect and integrity defines us.
The labor shortages seen across the country are impacting HNI particularly in our manufacturing operations. It has been a headwind as demand has outpaced our capacity to produce.”
How are you dealing with other continued fallout from the last year, like supply-chain issues and transportation slowdowns that are projected to last into 2022?
“Many “normal” ways of doing business have been challenged by the pandemic. We are reviewing all aspects of our business in this new light. Over time, we will change how we operate our supply chains, the amount of inventory in our system, and redundancy protocols to reduce the risk of disruption. We are working closely with many of our supplier partners, deploying HNI members to their locations and providing assistance to reduce the impact of the current supply constraints.”
HNI is very focused on sustainability. How is the company going to make furniture manufacturing a less impactful process?
“As we design our products, we prioritize the use of recycled, renewable, and low-emitting materials which are sourced responsibly and sustainably. We work to minimize the environmental impacts of our products and packaging from the manufacturing facility all the way to our customers’ locations. We are working in multiple areas to reduce our environmental impact through initiatives like improving energy efficiency, sourcing 100 percent renewable electricity, establishing carbon-smart strategies, and working toward zero waste to landfill.”
Are there any exciting projects on the horizon for HNI? What can the public expect to see from the company?
“Customers are demanding more effortless experiences. Buying office furniture and hearth products can be complicated and time-consuming. Working to deeply understand the customer, we will make things easier. We are investing in data analytics, digital assets and e-commerce capabilities. We also have many new products in development in both of our business segments.”